The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actress, 1947-1948)
The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.
I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.
This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.
Joan Crawford, Possessed
Susan Hayward, Smash-Up, The Story of a Woman
Dorothy McGuire, Gentleman’s Agreement
Rosalind Russell, Mourning Becomes Electra
Loretta Young, The Farmer’s Daughter
Possessed is Joan Crawford in her noir phase.
The movie opens with her wandering the streets, muttering a man’s name. (Bechdel loves this movie.) We then flash back to how she got there. She becomes obsessed with him, and he hates that. She marries another man she doesn’t love to save face. And she starts losing her shit when the guy comes back into her life… and starts dating her step daughter.
Crawford is fine here. I feel the performance is over the top with the histrionics, but not all necessarily do. She’s fine. But I also don’t think anyone takes her. Forgettable nominee for me.
Smash-Up, The Story of a Woman is a tried and true melodrama.
A woman is in the hospital covered in bandages and recounts how she got there. That’s a melodrama. She’s a singer married to another singer. His career takes off, hers doesn’t. She becomes an alcoholic. And her life spirals out of control.
Most melodramas end with self-sacrifice for the woman or the woman getting some sort of redemption in the end. Susan Hayward was one of those actresses whose characters usually ended up at some sort of rock bottom or ended really tragically undone by their own actions. You didn’t see that too often. Which made her stand out.
This, I feel, is a very boring film and a very weak nomination. Some feel otherwise. I don’t think this performance comes close to reaching the heights she’d reach in later nominations. This is a good start, but is one of those performances that rates fine but is something I’d never vote for. She rates probably third on pure performance in a weak category and is probably fourth for a vote from me. Just not something that appeals to me at all.
Gentleman’s Agreement is that movie about Jews.
Gregory Peck is a magazine reporter who decides to do a piece on anti-semitism, so he starts telling people he’s Jewish. And pretty quickly he starts seeing just how fucked up people are in this country, and how accepted hating Jews is, even on the smallest level of every day society. It’s one of the greatest films ever made.
Dorothy McGuire plays Peck’s girlfriend. It’s a borderline supporting role in that she has almost nothing to do for the first 40 minutes of the film and then acts as the girlfriend who stands by her man but also is turned off by what he’s doing. Though she gets to come around when she realizes that she’s not helping matters after a friend makes an anti-semitic and she stays silent. It’s a difficult part, one that could easily be one-dimensional. But she plays it well. I don’t think she’d normally be someone I’d vote for. She feels like a typical #4. Here, she might be as high as #2 just because of how weak this category is. This is one of the five weakest Best Actress categories of all time in my mind. She’s solid, and rates highly simply because of a lack of alternative.
Mourning Becomes Electra. Three hours. It’s a feat, this one.
It’s a Greek tragedy set in New England. A wealthy family has a bunch of fucked up issues with one another. Rosalind Russell loves her father dearly and finds out her mother is cheating on him. And not only that, with a man she’s had a crush on for a while. Oh, and she finds out the dude is actually related to her. Meanwhile the mother wants to kill her husband, since she never liked him, and one thing begets another and pretty much the entire family unravels into chaos.
Rosalind Russell gives a tour de force here. I am shocked she didn’t win this. The performance doesn’t hold up as well as you’d think, but neither do any of the others, really. She gives the best performance in the category, and really is the only choice here, as far as I’m concerned.
The Farmer’s Daughter is one of the most hated Oscar-winning films of all time. I don’t want to say it’s with good reason, but I also understand why people feel that way.
Loretta Young plays a Swedish girl who becomes a maid in the house of a well-known political family. They have influence all over and their son if a Representative being groomed for higher office. She endears herself to them with her practical nature and down to earth philosophy. And she gets the son to fall in love with her too. It’s a crazy fantasy of a movie. She ends up in Congress by the end.
I see exactly why people cry foul over her winning this, because this is the 40s equivalent of Sandra Bullock winning for The Blind Side. Totally understand that. That said, the film is fine and she’s certainly charming in it. But still, not something that really needed to happen.
She also had The Bishop’s Wife this year as well, so this marks one of those situations where an actress they’ve always respected was getting rewarded simply because, “Hey, we like you and it’s your time.”
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The Reconsideration: This is one of my least favorite Best Actress categories of all time. Which is what makes it difficult to have a problem with the outcome.
Crawford is way too much for me and I wouldn’t take her. Hayward just isn’t there for me and I wouldn’t take her either. Young is certainly enjoyable, but no. She has nothing to do, acting wise, and is pretty much forced to take a back seat to her own co-stars too much of the time.
Without a moment’s thought, it’s down to Dorothy McGuire and Rosalind Russell. And right there, you have a borderline supporting performance (not really) and a three hour showcase of a powerful dramatic character. I’m gonna take Russell. I wouldn’t in a different year, but it’s not a different year. This is what we have.
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- Rosalind Russell, Mourning Becomes Electra
- Dorothy McGuire, Gentleman’s Agreement
- Susan Hayward, Smash-Up, The Story of a Woman
- Loretta Young, The Farmer’s Daughter
- Joan Crawford, Possessed
- Gentleman’s Agreement
- The Farmer’s Daughter
- Mourning Becomes Electra
- Smash-Up, The Story of a Woman
My Vote: Rosalind Russell, Mourning Becomes Electra
Gentleman’s Agreement is an all-time essential film. Must be seen, almost even if you’re not into film. Because it’s socially important. There’s no excuse to not have seen this.
Mourning Becomes Electra is worth it if you want to talk about this category, or want to (basically) see the play without actually reading it. Let’s not pretend like we didn’t all do variations of this in high school. It — doesn’t really hold up particularly well, but is decent. Recommend really only for people who think they’d like it or want to talk Oscars.
The Farmer’s Daughter is only essential for Oscar buffs. It’s just a moderately enjoyable movie that really is only interesting because of the conversation it brings about for this category. Otherwise you can skip this and not be missing a whole lot.
Possessed is fine. Joan Crawford losing her shit. Not something I love or recommend except tepidly. It’s fine. See it, don’t see it. You’re fine either way.
Smash-Up, The Story of a Woman is not a film I like all that much, so I don’t recommend it unless you really love melodrama or really love Susan Hayward.
The Last Word: Hard to argue against young, given the category. She and Russell would have been the best choices. Hawyard would later get one, Crawford had one for a better performance, and McGuire is solid but feels more like she came along with her film than anything. Plus, among the three, the least substantial career. Which doesn’t matter so much if the performance is strong enough, but here, probably makes her not old up as well. As the others. On pure performance, it’s Russell. But hard to argue against the Young win, all things considered.
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Ingrid Bergman, Joan of Arc
Olivia de Havilland, The Snake Pit
Irene Dunne, I Remember Mama
Barbara Stanwyck, Sorry, Wrong Number
Jane Wyman, Johnny Belinda
Joan of Arc is a self-explanatory movie.
Ingrid Bergman plays Joan.
Not much else to say there.
I liked the movie more than I thought I would. The performance I think is solid, but not something I take. I think she’s appropriately likable and rousing, and she makes you understand why Joan was so dynamic and why people wanted to follow her, but ultimately I think this is a performance I only want to take in an extremely weak year. In a year like this, maybe she makes third on pure performance and ends up fourth for a vote when you factor in everything else. Solid, but not for me.
The Snake Pit is one of the best movies about mental illness I’ve ever seen. And the fact that it still mostly holds up today is impressive. This is not the type of subject matter you’re used to seeing from movies of this era.
Olivia de Havilland is a woman who wakes up in a mental hospital with no idea how she got there. We find out she’s schizophrenic. And most of the movie is seeing her life in the hospital and seeing her doctor try to help her and cure her. And in a lot of this we flash back to her life before the hospital and what drove her to end up there. It’s wonderful. Like, actually wonderful and a film I consider an all time great and one of the most under-appreciated films of all time.
Olivia de Havilland wins this if not for Jane Wyman. In terms of her nominated performances, her two best are this performance and next year’s performance. She’s great here. She’s almost a 1a. I wish I could take her here. It’s an impressive performance even by today’s standards. She’s easily someone to take if not for Jane Wyman.
I Remember Mama is the kind of movie you just know Steven Spielberg loves. It’s sentimental like crazy, which I also love about it.
It’s one of those movies that’s about a child’s remembrances of growing up. Here, the family are Norwegian immigrant family struggling to make ends meet. And we follow them through mostly vignettes that paint a full picture of who these people are. It’s like Avalon but made in the 40s.
Irene Dunne plays Mama. She’s the matriarch of the family. It’s the kind of elder statesman role. She’s wonderful here. She’s “Mama.” Of course you love her. She doesn’t really have a whole lot to do, but she does it well. This is the kind of performance you rate higher because you love her and you love the movie, but it’s not like she really has a whole lot to do here. This might be fifth in the category in terms of pure acting and all that, but I’d put it as high as third just because I love her and the film and the performance.
Sorry, Wrong Number is a noir. It’s a fairly standard movie that Stanwyck elevates by delivering a great performance.
The conceit of the film is that she is a bedridden woman who overhears a murder plot on her phone when the lines get crossed. She tries telling the cops, but without further details, they can’t do anything. She only knows when the murder will happen, and an approximate location (near a passing train). Meanwhile her husband is late coming home, and while she’s calling around to try to find him, she starts to piece together what’s going on with the murder. It’s a great suspense film.
Stanwyck is very good here. This, by all accounts, is a film and a performance that shouldn’t rate a nomination. But she delivers the goods. Most of the performance is her in a bed, which makes it all the more impressive. No way I take her here, but she’s wonderful in the part.
Johnny Belinda is one of my favorite films I discovered from this Quest. I fell in love hard with this one.
Lew Ayres is a doctor who moves to a rural town and has to adjust to their ways. He takes an interest in a farmer and his family, particularly the farmer’s daughter, Belinda, a deaf mute. The farmer thinks Belinda is stupid, but Ayres realizes she can communicate, she just doesn’t have the means to. So he starts teaching her sign language. And eventually she’s able to communicate fully and start to integrate more into society. But then she gets raped by one of the men from the town and gets pregnant. And when she refuses to say what happened, the townspeople assume the father is the doctor she’s been spending so much time with. Drama happens.
Jane Wyman plays Belinda, and honestly, this is one of the best Best Actress winning performances I’ve ever seen. I fully understand why she won, and I can’t even pretend like there’s anyone else worth taking in this category. (There is, but not over here.) She makes you fall in love with the character within minutes, and you’re with her all the way. She doesn’t speak a word in this movie, and the way I feel about this performance is the way people feel about Holly Hunter’s performance in The Piano. Same thing. I like this one better, but to each his own. She is unbeatable here.
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The Reconsideration: 1947 was one of my least favorite categories, and this is one of my favorites. Purely because of the top three contenders. In terms of performances, it’s above average. Not sure it’s a top ten all time or anything, but it’s definitely pretty high up, as least, in my mind.
To start — Jane Wyman walks, runs and flies away with this category, and it’s not even close.
Olivia de Havilland would be the choice in just about any other year, but not against Wyman.
Barbara Stanwyck is the performance that overcomes a B movie set up and actually creates something really interesting with her role. So she’s the nominee that shouldn’t really be there which makes the nomination the reward.
Irene Dunne is the veteran, classy nomination for a solid film but not something you vote for. This is the equivalent of Claudette Colbert in Since You Went Away. This doesn’t win most years unless it’s really someone who they want to have an Oscar and the year is weak. 1947 might have been a better year for this performance, but even then, I’m not sure she wins.
Ingrid Bergman is a curious one. She might have had a shot here. The role makes sense and the performance is rousing enough to make some waves. Still, don’t think she’s good enough to take down the top two.
Strong category, but Wyman is the clear choice here, with de Havilland the somewhat distant, but solid alternate/second choice.
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- Jane Wyman, Johnny Belinda
- Olivia de Havilland, The Snake Pit
- Irene Dunne, I Remember Mama
- Ingrid Bergman, Joan of Arc
- Barbara Stanwyck, Sorry, Wrong Number
- Johnny Belinda
- I Remember Mama
- The Snake Pit
- Sorry, Wrong Number
- Joan of Arc
My Vote: Jane Wyman, Johnny Belinda
Johnny Belinda is a film that I love. I want to say it’s essential, but it’s probably not. It’s essential for Oscar buffs because of the Wyman win. Otherwise it’s a very high recommend from me and a solid recommend for most, I’d think.
I Remember Mama is a great film that I love. Also a very high recommend out of me and just a solid recommend otherwise. If you like those films like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and How Green Was My Valley, you’ll like this.
The Snake Pit is incredible. Also a very high recommend. One of the best mental illness films of all time and a great performance by Olivia de Havilland. Film buffs should see this.
Sorry, Wrong Number is an awesome noir. High recommend. Great performances. Plus Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster. No reason not to see this. It’s awesome.
Joan of Arc is good. Solid recommend. Ingrid Bergman, a story you know, and a good looking film. Might as well. Good shit here.
The Last Word: It’s Wyman all the way. Any other year it’s de Havilland, but here Wyman runs away with it. Stanwyck wouldn’t have held up, and neither would Bergman. Dunne would have been a career Oscar and looked fairly weak considering the competition. Wyman was the choice, or de Havilland was the choice. But since de Havilland won right after this, Wyman looks pretty good historically.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)